In the Times, Amy Harmon reports on an effort by some high school biology teachers to rebut racist beliefs about genetics:
Biology textbooks used in American high schools do not go near the sensitive question of whether genetics can explain why African-Americans are overrepresented as football players and why a disproportionate number of American scientists are white or Asian.
But in a study starting this month, a group of biology teachers from across the country will address it head-on. They are testing the idea that the science classroom may be the best place to provide a buffer against the unfounded genetic rationales for human difference that often become the basis for racial intolerance.
At a recent training in Colorado, the dozen teachers who had volunteered to participate in the experiment acknowledged the challenges of inserting the combustible topic of race and ancestry into straightforward lessons on the 19th-century pea-breeding experiments of Gregor Mendel and the basic function of the strands of DNA coiled in every cell. . . .
The history of today’s racial categories arose long before the field of genetics and have been used to justify all manner of discriminatory policies. Race, a social concept bound up in culture and family, is not a topic of study in modern human population genetics, which typically uses concepts like “ancestry” or “population” to describe geographic genetic groupings.
But that has not stopped many Americans from believing that genes cause racial groups to have distinct skills, traits and abilities. And among some biology teachers, there has been a growing sense that avoiding any direct mention of race in their genetics curriculum may be backfiring.
“I know it’s threatening,” said Brian Donovan, a science education researcher at the nonprofit BSCS Science Learning who is leading the study. “The thing to remember is that kids are already making sense of race and biology, but with no guidance.”
My reaction to this is cautious and ambivalent. On the one hand, dealing with race in biology class makes a lot more sense than anti-racist math or other sorts of woke silliness. And there are some facts about race that one might convey to high school students, for example that people from east and west Africa are more different from each other than Europeans are from Chinese, or that most human variation is within rather than between populations.
On the other hand, people are bad listeners. Treating the genetics of race as a serious topic is just going to convince some kids that there is something to racist ideas, or confirm their prior beliefs in that direction. Like when politicians deny being involved in scandals and half the public hears only the connection between the scandal and the name.
But to me the real problem is that we really know precious little about the genetics of human behavior in any sense, and therefore have no idea whether there are hereditary behavioral differences between populations. Such differences would presumably not be very large, but they could exist and they might matter. This is why I have always argued against a philosophical position that says we should treat people equally because they are all the same. I think there may well be important differences between different types of people – between men and women, between 25-year-olds and 55-year-olds, between immigrants and the native born – so I think we need to acknowledge differences and take our stand on treating people as equally as we can despite them.
I do not think the causality flows from bad beliefs about genetics to bad feelings about people of other races or groups, but the other way around. Racist pseudo-science is just window-dressing for identity affirmation and tribal hate, and is completely unnecessary to racism. Even if you could cure people of it, that would not change their feelings. In the face of commitment to an identity that provides meaning to people's lives and a structure for interpreting the world, evidence and logic are likely to be of no use whatsoever.
Only gradual social and psychological change will help. Fortunately, that seems to be happening.